The mystery of whether or not there’s alien life has long fascinated humans — and NASA expects we might have a definitive answer in the next twenty years. Unfortunately, the search for extraterrestrial life has never been politically popular; scientists in this field are all privately funded, as politicians have repeatedly cut official NASA programs. Even if politicians don’t think it’s important, finding aliens would have a huge impact on science, and the knowledge we could gain is worth it — and here are five scientific heroes working to unlock those secrets.
Without Dr. Frank Drake, we probably wouldn’t have started looking for aliens in the first place. Drake is the creator of the Drake Equation, which estimates the number of active civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy that we may be able to communicate with. Drake himself originally estimated the number of civilizations was between 20 and 50 million, however due to current research, the range could be between two and 280 million.
If the Drake Equation was all Dr. Drake were known for, he’d be a big deal when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (or SETI) — but as it turns out, Drake also invented the scientific field of SETI. Not just that, but he worked with Carl Sagan on the Pioneer Plaque — a plaque on the side of the NASA spacecrafts Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, depicting a pictograph explaining life on earth to any alien civilizations the Pioneer crafts may come across.
Dr. Drake, now 85, still serves on the board of trustees of the SETI Institute.
The current face of SETI research is Dr. Seth Shostak, the Senior Astronomer and Director of the SETI Institute. He also has written over 400 articles about SETI, along with three general-interest books about it. Dr. Shostak also co-hosts the SETI Institute’s syndicated radio show Big Picture Science, and won the 2004 Klumpke-Roberts Award for his work and efforts in educating the public about astronomy.
Lest you think all this alien-hunting is pseudo-scientific nonsense, Dr. Shostak is a fellow of the Committee For Skeptical Inquiry, a noted organization devoted to debunking pseudoscience. Not only that, but once a month, Big Picture Science has a special “Skeptic Check” episode.
David P. Anderson
Dr. David Anderson is the reason you can help the SETI Institute out with your home computer. He, along with Dan Werthimer and David Gedye, founded SETI@home, the largest distributed computing campaign. If you download the SETI@Home app, it runs in the background, using your idle processing power to scan through data from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. The software looks for anything that might be scientifically interesting — power spikes, pulsing signals or anything that looks like it might be a signal from another civilization.
Until this year, Dr. Anderson was the director of the SETI@home project — the new director is Dr. Eric Korpela. Dr. Anderson, however, still is the leader of the BOINC project, which handles distributed computing and was originally written for SETI@home to run on. Many other projects similar to SETI@home also use the BOINC framework, including Rosetta@home, which examines protein shapes in hopes of finding cures for disease, and Einstein@Home, which looks for pulsars.
Jerry R. Ehman
We don’t know definitively if alien life has ever contacted human beings — but if they have, Dr. Jerry Ehman is the guy they talked to. In 1977, the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University received a surprising signal — over 30 times louder than the normal sound of space. On a printout, Dr. Ehman circled the anomaly and wrote “Wow!” next to it — thus giving the name to the now famous “Wow! signal“. Not only that, but the Wow! signal is very close to the Hydrogen line, the frequency many SETI researchers expect alien life to contact us at because it’s the resonant frequency of hydrogen, the most common element.
The Big Ear was closed and demolished in 1997; Dr. Ehman continued to volunteer at Ohio State’s radio astronomy program until 2008. The Wow! signal has yet to be rediscovered.
Along with Dr. Frank Drake, Dr. John Billingham is a pioneer in the field of SETI. Dr. Billingham was a co-director of Project Cyclops, an official NASA project to determine how best to detect and study extraterrestrial life. Unfortunately, NASA never acted on Project Cyclops’ recommendations, as it would have cost $10 billion. The project was hugely influential though — it was the reason NASA experimented with SETI research in the ’70s and ’80s before funding was pulled, and Project Cyclops provided the backbone of the fledgling independent SETI groups as well.
Project Cyclops was so forward thinking that of the original fifteen conclusions, only six were updated in a SETI Institute-published book from 2002, SETI 2020 — and most of those were based on advances in technology Dr. Billingham couldn’t have predicted in 1971. The other nine conclusions have stood the test of time.
Dr. Billingham has been inducted into the NASA Ames Hall of Fame, and joined the SETI Institute when he retired from NASA. Dr. Billingham passed away in 2013 at the age of 83.
(Featured image via Interdimensional Guardians/Flickr)